New Law Encourages Calling 911 in Drug Overdose Cases; Some Drug and Alcohol Law Violations Not a Crime When Help is Sought
Twice As Many Overdose Deaths in 2010 as Traffic-Related Fatalities; Nearly 900 Overdose Deaths in D.C. Since 2003
Those of us in the cannabis community could be described as being a little spoiled; after all, we never have to worry about endangering our lives with a marijuana overdose. For most other medicines and certainly for illegal drugs, however, that possibility is all too real.
A new District of Columbia law takes effect on Tuesday, March 19, providing limited legal protection for those who witness or experience a drug overdose and summon medical assistance.
The majority of overdose victims are in the presence of others and do not die until several hours after they have taken a drug, meaning that there is both time and opportunity to summon medical help. Fear of arrest and prosecution often prevents people who are in a position to help from calling 911.
“Criminalization should not be a barrier to calling 911,” said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “This new law will help encourage District residents who witness an overdose to pick up the phone and help save a life.”
The Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Amendment Act of 2012 (#A19-564) directs the D.C. Department of Health to educate the public about the new law and specifies that:
· Law enforcement officers who observe small amounts of illegal drugs or paraphernalia at the scene of an overdose should not consider these drug law violations to be crimes for the individual experiencing the overdose and the witness who sought emergency medical services.
· A minor is provided limited protection from criminal charges for underage possession of alcohol if they experience an overdose or seek emergency medical services for a peer.
· An adult who is 25 years of age or younger is given limited protection from criminal charges for providing alcohol or other drugs to a minor who is 16 years of age or older if they seek emergency medical services for the minor in need.
· The possession of naloxone – a medication that rapidly reverses opiate overdoses – and its use by laypersons on individuals experiencing an opiate overdose is decriminalized.
Ten states (California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and Washington State) have already enacted Good Samaritan laws for preventing fatal drug overdoses. Good Samaritan legislation is currently pending in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Missouri and other states.
A coalition comprised of the Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, Bread for the City, HIPS, students from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and GW Law Students for Sensible Drug Policy, parents and advocates supported passage of the Good Samaritan law.
“Implementation of this new law by public health and law enforcement officials is critical to improving public willingness to immediately seek medical assistance for overdoses involving illegal drug and alcohol use,” said Grant Smith of the DPA.
Nationally, drug overdose rates have increased more than five times since 1990, and increased more than 150 percent between 2000 and 2010. In recent years, cocaine has been the lead cause of overdose death in D.C., followed by heroin and other opiates. District of Columbia Medical Examiner data indicate that African American residents are at greatest risk of experiencing a fatal overdose.